The need for industrial hydrogen could give birth to a whole new class of electrolyzer, according to Wisconsin-based start-up Advanced Ionics. Using waste heat from processes such as steelmaking, the company claims that its ‘Symbiotic’ technology can reduce the cost of hydrogen production by 30%, targeting a price of just $0.85 per kilogram.
It’s unlikely you’ll have heard of Advanced Ionics before; until two weeks ago, the company was operating in ‘stealth mode.’ Now, having secured $4.2 million in a funding round led by Clean Energy Ventures, the company is in conversation with partners for potential pilot projects. It hopes to start taking commercial orders as early as 2024, with shipments following in 2025.
The technology that the company has developed is similar to other electrolyzers in its ambition to produce green hydrogen using low-cost renewable electricity. It’s plan, however, is to use up to 50% less of this electricity and to reduce the overall cost of production.
In the nascent commercial setting, electrolyzers are broadly categorized into three types: Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM), Anion Exchange Membrane (AEM), and Solid Oxide Electrolysis (SOE). AEM and PEM electrolyzers typically use over 50 kWh of electricity to produce one kilogram of hydrogen.
Advanced Ionics’ electrolyzer uses waste heat, of between 100 and 650 degrees Celsius, to replace over 40% of this energy requirement, using just 35 kWh of electricity per kilogram of hydrogen. With the cost of electricity set to account for 75% of the cost of green hydrogen production in 2027 – up from 53% today – according to Rethink Energy, such advances could cut the price of green hydrogen by over 30%.
In a future with low cost solar power at around $20 per MWh, and with batteries allowing for electrolyzers to run at capacity factors of over 90%, Advanced Ionics believes that it can obtain a price of hydrogen of just $0.85 per kilogram. The company also claims that it can work with intermittent renewables by ramping production rates up and down accordingly.
Running beyond the boiling temperature of water, the company’s electrolyzer will run on water vapor, using heated steam in a similar way to a Solid Oxide electrolyzer to achieve greater efficiencies. Compared to SOEs though, the Symbiotic electrolyzer will run at relatively modest temperatures, hoping to allow for cheaper materials to be used for the large-scale assembly, including stainless steel, rather than expensive ceramics, for the stack.
The concept is similar to that of H2Pro, an Israeli startup which plans on using heat to assist in the production of oxygen in electrolysis, preventing any unnecessary use of electricity, which could otherwise be used for the hydrogen evolution reaction.
Compared to PEM electrolyzers, specifically, the company also boasts the eliminated requirement for expensive rare materials like platinum and iridium. This should alleviate worries of supply shortages in production, while also reducing dependency on Russian imports for platinum; the country currently accounts for more than 15% of the world’s production. While Advanced Ionics has not provided much information on the chemistry of its product, it has said that it will use a combination of engineered porous metal electrodes and composite ionic materials for its electrolyte; it will not require “delicate” perfluorinated membranes or “expensive” ceramics.
Given the requirement for waste heat in the production of Advanced Ionics’ hydrogen, the company is naturally targeting industrial sites, with its Symbiotic approach well-suited in adjacence to industries like cement and steelmaking, as well as paper and pulp production, that are likely to use hydrogen in decarbonizing their own heat supply. It may also target the production of ammonia and oil refining, which currently account for around 75 million tons of hydrogen demand per year, satisfied by fossil-fuel means of production.
SOEs are also targeting this space, but often require heat of up to 850 degrees Celsius to operate – a temperature which is rare in a waste-heat setting. Advanced Ionics has pointed to the cost of stepping up the temperature of the steam from typical industrial applications to reach this, and how many SOE manufacturers fail to account for this in their production cost calculations.
It’s obvious given the $4.2 million funding round that the company is still in the early stages of a long road to commercialization; its technology is still entirely lab-based. It will use the recent funding to develop initial pilot projects, and following its first shipments in 2025, the company is aiming to reach a production capacity of at least 1 GW per year by 2030, servicing European and North American markets. The forthcoming demonstration projects will show us just how feasible this technology is, and just how quickly it can be scaled.